Changes in the popularity of cat breeds are largely driven by human perceptions of, and selection for, phenotypic traits including skull morphology. The popularity of breeds with altered skull shapes appears to be increasing, and owner preferences are an important part of this dynamic. This study sought to establish how and why a range of phenotypic attributes, including skull shape, affect preferences shown by cat owners. Two questionnaires were distributed on-line to cat owners who were asked to rate preferences for pictures of cats on a 0–10 scale. Veterinarian consensus established the skull types of the cats pictured (i.e., level of brachycephaly (BC) or dolichocephaly (DC)). Preferences were then explored relative to cat skull type, coat and eye color, and coat length. Generalized estimating equations identified relationships between physical characteristics and respondent ratings. Further sub-analyses explored effects of respondents’ occupation, location and previous cat ownership on rating scores. Overall, cats with extreme changes in skull morphology (both BC and DC) were significantly less preferred than mesocephalic cats. Green eyes, ginger coat color and medium length coat were most preferred. Current owners of a BC or DC pure bred cat showed significantly greater preference for cats with similar features and significantly lower preference for the opposite extreme. Respondents from Asia were significantly more likely to prefer both BC and DC cats as compared to respondents from other locations. Finally, those in an animal care profession, as compared to other professions, provided a significantly lower preference rating for BC cats but not for DC cats. This work, despite the acknowledged limitations, provides preliminary evidence that preferences for cat breeds, and their associated skull morphologies, are driven by both cultural and experiential parameters. This information may allow for better targeting of educational materials concerning cat breeds.
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